Aztec Society, Historical Myths, and Understanding Collapse

Still working on that religion post and some others, but in the meantime, I’ve wanted to post this interview that I ran across on the BBC’s Civilizations podcast for years now. This particular episode concentrates on civilizational collapse, which is obviously of interest to me and, I suspect, to readers of the blog (if they exist LoL).

The first half of the podcast, however, is an interview with an expert on Mesoamerican civilization, Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, who dispels a lot of the common myths about that culture. Some of this information will be relevant soon, when we talk about the economics of New World empires (hopefully coming soon?). But for now, read and learn (lightly edited for clarity):

On the Aztec practice of human sacrifice:

“Human sacrifice is what everybody knows about the Aztecs. And they certainly do practice human sacrifice on an extraordinarily large scale. What we do know is that this is actually a very sophisticated, very compassionate, very cultured civilization where death is not held cheap…

Sacrifice for them is a religious act, and they believe that if they don’t sacrifice people, then the world will come to an end. It’s part of a reciprocal relationship with the gods, where the gods nourish and nurture them, and they have to feed the gods with blood to keep the world turning, essentially. And they believe that if you die as a sacrifice, then you will go to a sort of privileged afterlife; it’s almost like a martyrdom. And so it’s a way of attaining privilege in the afterlife in a culture that doesn’t believe you get a very nice here-and-now, as it were.”

“And so they construct this very complex belief system in which sacrifice becomes something that is supposed to be a privilege. Something which to me is very vital in understanding Aztec culture is the fact that they have a universal education system. Both men and women are educated institutionally; where both learn at home from their families about day-to-day jobs like fishing and weaving and so on. And young men go into schools to learn to be priests and warriors. There is a third school which doesn’t get talked about—the cuicacalli—the ‘House of Song’. As teenagers, young men and young women go separately to this place to learn the history, mythology, and religion of their culture.”

“Now, you might call that indoctrination. But it’s really, really important for understanding why Aztec culture can commit human sacrifice without being dehumanized by it to know that every person witnessing it, or participating in it, understood why it was happening. This isn’t like Catholic Europe at the time where all the ceremonies are happening in Latin, and some people understand what’s going on, and other people have quite a vague grasp of the essentials. It is absolutely educated, informed knowledge of what the rituals are meant to represent. And it’s really vital to know that that is happening, because if everybody knows that all these people [who] are being sacrificed are supposedly going to a better place, and it’s essential [so] that the world [doesn’t come] to an end, it becomes possible to see how they might go along with it for reasons other than just kind of cheering at brutality.”

“They train priests in a way that suggests that they don’t think killing people will be very easy, so they go to lengths to separate them from their families; to train them in a very vigorous way much like you would if you were going into the army, maybe, to desensitize the people who were actually going to do the sacrifices. And they don’t have an awful lot of interpersonal violence in their culture. This isn’t a very savage culture as people suggest. Sacrificial violence is certainly normalized, but not day-to-day violence. That’s the thing. Just because people commit human sacrifice, that doesn’t mean they think it’s acceptable to stab their neighbors.”

On the Aztecs being a very ancient culture:

“People think they’re a very ancient culture sitting alongside people like the Egyptians or the Romans in people’s minds. But actually they’re contemporary with things like Henry VIII. They only are conquered in 1521–very, very recently. And actually, they have an extremely developed legal code. Lots and lots of strong rules. Perhaps even stronger, for some things, than in Europe at this time. They do have capital punishment. They have very developed systems of retributive justice, as well as restorative justice. So that means you punish people, but also you have compensation for things. So it’s actually a very complicated culture, and also a very, very recent one, and I think that’s something people forget.”

On whether the Aztec Empire was a brutal dictatorship:

“The Aztecs do have quite strong hierarchies, but they also have a reasonable amount of social mobility.”

“It’s a bit of a misnomer to call the ruler an ‘emperor’ because there’s some debate about whether it’s even an empire at all. The real name of the ruler is the Tlatoani—a speaker, ‘he who speaks’, which tells you something about the culture. It’s important that he’s the representative for the society and for the gods. And he is at the head of  a society which has quite a lot of checks and balances. They think it’s really, really important that you be competent in your job. And they have this balance of birth and competence as a way of organizing everything.”

“So, for example, to become the Tlatoani, it’s not the first-born son that gets to do the job. You are elected. We don’t know exactly how—probably nominated from amongst the high nobles. But they pick the person they think will do the best job. So, often it’s a  brother or a younger son of the previous Tlatoani; it’s not always the eldest son—in fact it isn’t usually. You have to be related to the previous Tlatoani, but being the eldest son doesn’t help you at all.”

“And you see these sorts of patterns go all the way down through the society. So they have two levels of nobility: Teuctli, who we usually call ‘lords’; that’s the high nobility. And then the Pilli, who we usually call the ‘nobles’—that’s kind of the low nobility. And you can’t be born a Teuctli – a high lord. You can only be born Pilli. To become Teuctli, you have to attain that through your own achievements. It’s jobs like being the head of the priesthood, or the head of the warriors, or having  senior warrior role. Things like this make you a Teuctli, but you can’t be born that.”

“And people who are born commoners—mācēhualtin—they can become Pilli—nobles–through their achievements, often through being particularly clever, particularly successful in the schools and  in the administration, often through warfare—that’s the most common way—to be a really good warrior. And then occasionally you have stories, for example, of a Tlatoani, a ruler, making someone into a noble just because they’re impressed with them. There’s a famous case of a ruler making a gardener into a noble because he’s so impressed with his honesty. Things like that.”

On social advancement compared to contemporaneous Europe

“One of the things I find most interesting about Aztec culture is that we make assumptions about how savage and ancient it is. And actually in some ways it’s far, far more modern than contemporaneous European civilizations. They have greater social mobility. They have a sort of social care system. They have collective grain storehouses. When you get married, if you’re rich you give capes—that’s the equivalent of currency—you give capes into the collective storehouses, and if you’re poor, you take capes out—you’re given some. So there’s a collective redistribution of wealth to make sure that nobody is too poor to set up their own household.”

“I’m not saying that this is a kind of idealized civilization, but it’s actually a lot better in some ways, I think—for women in particular, maybe—than some contemporaneous European civilizations. You’re allowed to enjoy sex if you’re a woman in this culture. Sex outside of marriage isn’t taboo. You can’t beat your wife. Men and women inherit property equally. Things like this.”

On the role and status of women in such a warlike society

“The fact that warfare is the principal focus of this civilization in many contexts certainly means that there are areas of life from which women are excluded. So they can’t attain high political office, because the high political offices are synonymous with high warrior offices and high priest offices, and they can’t do either of those things. On the other hand, we know that women were also scribes; they were  painters; they were the people who kept the records, which is a hugely skilled job. They must have been very, very important.”

“Childbirth is so interesting because it’s seen as the equivalent of warfare for women. They talk about having children as ‘capturing’ a baby; that the woman had borne the ‘small shield’; that she has returned ‘victorious from battle’–all these kinds of words. And they are honored as parents of warriors.”

“Warfare and childbirth are seen as equivalent fates for men and women. You can see that if you look at what happens in the afterlife. After you die, as a sacrificial victim or in battle, the man would spend four years accompanying the sun; carrying the sun god to its zenith at midday. What they then do, is hand the sun at midday, it’s believed, over [into] the hands of the souls of women who’ve died in childbirth, and they carry the sun to its setting. So you can see this parallel being drawn very clearly between the souls of men who’ve died in sacrifice and in battle, and the souls of women who’ve died in childbirth. It brings equal honor in the afterlife.”

On comparisons to European (Christian) Monotheism

“One of the real problems we have as historians of the Aztec world is that all our sources, except the archaeology, are from after the conquest…so everything we’re reading is reliant on the viewpoint of colonial Spanish men, usually friars. And they don’t want to see a similarity between Aztec religion and Christianity.”

“But, of course, both of them are based around this idea of blood sacrifice. There is, at the heart of Christianity, a sacrifice of blood…if you were a thousand years in the future, and Christianity had died out, and people were just looking at the texts of Christianity, wouldn’t you think maybe they were actual cannibals? Because you talk all the time about eating the body and blood of Christ. How would you read them if you simply took them cold with no contextual information? And so there’s actually a fascinating parallel–this focus on blood as a mythical, a religious, a spiritual totem, is something which is at the heart of Christianity as well as at the heart of Aztec culture.”

“Of course, the Europeans use concepts of their own to try and make this culture comprehensible to them. And it’s not that they see no cultural similarities, or things to admire. They very much admire how devout [the Aztecs] are. A lot of missionaries early on say, ‘obviously they’ve been very misguided in their religion, but they’re such devout people. If only we could bring them to the knowledge of the true God, they would be the most Christian Christians in the world.’ They hate the human sacrifice, but they actually don’t have any trouble understanding that this is from a religious point of view. Don’t forget, this is a society in which violence for religion is very, very familiar. This is a society where—if you think of early modern Spain—where it is very normal that people are being burned alive for being heretics, or crushed between stones, or stoned to death. It’s not unusual…”

And then the interviewer talks to Dr. Guy Middleton, an archaeological “collapsologist” about the realities of civilizational collapse as opposed to the sensationalized Hollywood movies and documentaries:

Guy Middleton (guest): “You wouldn’t find in the archaeological literature that kind of very sudden, very dramatic picture being drawn. You’d find a lot more cautious, a lot more nuanced positions being put forward.”

Viv Jones (host): “There’s a common story about how the Maya civilization collapsed, which you may have come across in articles and documentaries. The story goes, that a period of extreme drought withered their crops and killed off thousands. The Maya were powerless to prevent their own demise as food and water run out. Eventually the jungle reclaimed their palaces and pyramids. But…”

GM: “The megadrought story is very much a modern myth. Even if we accept that there were droughts—and undoubtedly there were; we know there were droughts there in historical times—the Maya area itself was very big and made up of very many—tens or hundreds of independent little states and big states. I think the idea that one massive megadrought killed off all the Maya and caused the collapse of their societies is wrong.”

VJ: “We do know that in the ninth century, many cities in the region were abandoned. What’s unclear is what happened to the people who were living there.”

GM: That’s the million-dollar question. Talking about one Maya collapse is a bit misleading. What we call the collapse of the classic Maya is really a process that takes 200-300 years to play out. And it plays out differently in different regions. So, sites in the north collapse around 1000 or 1050 AD; sites in the south are collapsing in the late 700’s AD. So you’ve got different trajectories, in different cities, in different areas. I think you get a decline in birthrate that happens over this 200-300 year period. So there’s not a certain depopulation. Some sites are abandoned–that’s absolutely right. But you get new cities coming up. It’s different across the whole Maya region.

VJ: So the Maya civilization didn’t suffer one collapse. It’s likely that different kingdoms met very different ends. Along with droughts, there was also a lot of warfare between different Maya kingdoms, and that caused populations to fall, and some cities to be abandoned. This period of sharp decline ended 900 years ago. Very few Maya settlements remained, but some were still thriving when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century.

GM: “What really did for it, for traditional Maya society, was the Spanish. It’s something like a barbarian invasion. What I find particularly interesting is that you’ve got the very last independent Maya kingdom,–which was a kingdom called Nojpetén–that was only destroyed by the Spanish in 1697. And that’s really close to us in time. And it’s about 900 years after people place the Maya collapse. So they don’t disappear en masse, and they still have a complex culture which the Spanish encountered.”

“But when the Spanish come in, they behave particularly appallingly. For example, they take the children of the nobility to build schools for them and to basically brainwash them into a Catholic culture, and to reject their own culture. So there was a very deliberate process of cultural destruction performed by the Spanish on the Maya.”

VJ: So how did we end up with this popular idea in books, documentaries, and articles of a massive, apocalyptic Maya collapse brought on by drought?

GM: I think we’ve kind of got an inbuilt draw to these dramatic, sweeping stories. And I think you can go back to Biblical images, which are still very much a part of our society. We’ve got these images of disasters–God destroying cities. And then we’ve got the rise of Hollywood, and disaster films, and it’s quite exciting and dramatic and appealing, in that sense, to what we like from a story…

And Dr. Guy Middleton’s conclusion:

Like people say, you get the history you deserve at a particular point in time. You also get the collapse stories that you deserve at a particular point in time. People have looked at the modern situation and the environmental problems that we face now. We know that we have done terrible things to the environment. We can look at plastic pollution now, but also agricultural industry, and monocultural agriculture, and climate change. And we can look back and say we’ve got bits of evidence that suggest the same things might have been happening. And it’s dubious, in a sense, because the situations of ancient societies are so much different, and we’ve been much, much more destructive than any ancient society.

So I think, in a way, to blame collapse on things like climate change—the evidence doesn’t usually support climate change as a single cause of any collapse. If we do it, we’re kind of stealing people’s histories, and some environmental writers and other people try to use examples of ancient collapse—especially the Maya, and especially the Easter Islanders—as kind of moral tales on how we ought to treat our environment. And the fate of those societies is a fate that we can predict for ourselves if we continue in our immoral, environmentally destructive behavior. But I think that’s not doing history, that’s stealing people’s history–stealing people’s stories for our modern-day Western consumption.

And that’s one of the reasons collapse is so interesting. Because you go back and look at what a society was, and look closely at how it changed and who it changed for in different ways. Our upcoming global collapse will be different in scale, and perhaps number of deaths…

Episode 6: How Civilisations Collapse and Understanding the Aztecs (The Civlizations Podcast, BBC Radio)

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